In Bangkok these past few months, everyday labor hasn’t missed a beat. Observing from afar, you’d be forgiven for thinking the whole city shut down, as many malls, offices, and hotels indeed did. But actually, most workplaces kept up regular operations.
This was especially true for the networks of small-scale industrial/manufacturing labor situated on back streets, away from the main traffic arteries. These networks are vast and often informal, but they provide vital services for a big city and employ many people. Some businesses are run out of storefront machine shops, while others use little more than a patch of sidewalk. We’re talking small engine repair, recycling collection, welding, wire-stripping, and the like.
This montage includes five examples of the sounds of urban labor in a tense time. Each is about one minute; follow the annotations below as you listen.
0:00 – 1:07 A recycling facility on a large side street supports many young men in the neighborhood, who gather paper, cardboard, and plastic bottles from nearby buildings and bring them in for 2 baht per kilogram. Here, two men crush cans and stuff them into big clear bags, which they load onto a cart.
1:08 – 2:01 In the United States, ice cream trucks are just about the only mobile sonic advertisements we have. In Thailand, there’s a greater variety, including fruit trucks with speakers tied to the top, so the driver can call out that day’s price for mangosteens and lychees. In this recording, a mobile broom-and-bucket-shop plays its jingle again and again. Sonic ads for all kinds of businesses are more tolerated here, for whatever reason.
2:02 – 3:08 A welder fixes up a door. This neighborhood is a mixture of large, modern houses, international schools, and blue-collar family homes. Many of the blue-collar workers do construction work for their wealthier neighbors.
3:09 – 3:50 A pair of young men hammer thin metal poles into shape for use in construction.
3:51 – 5:45 Some of the more established shops supply parts for larger industries, including automobile manufacturing. Since most of the cars built in Thailand will be exported to other countries, these small shops are closely connected to global trade. As you can hear an example of from about five minutes onward, news reports were often the soundtrack to these shops in April and May.